A fabulous crime ensemble with each player competing to steal the frame, Guy Ritchie’s “The Gentlemen” is the new decade’s first great original film. After reigniting the lost spark of Disney magic with last summer’s “Aladdin,” Ritchie returns to his early filmmaking roots by revealing the grime within Great Britain’s posh shine. Matthew McConaughey leads a cast of all-stars who exude more danger with one peeved glance than a mob of armed enforcers. This dark comedy thriller is devilish fun even when it nearly runs out of oxygen from excessive sharp-tongue sparring. Brazenly unapologetic, there’s nary a saint to be found, so it’s best to sit back and enjoy the frenzy among thieves.
McConaughey plays drug kingpin Mickey Pearson, a wealthy American who runs a cannabis empire on British soil. Looking for an early retirement buyout now that legalization of marijuana is becoming a hot global issue, Pearson negotiates a purchase from billionaire investor Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong). The flamboyant and smarmy Berger appears sold on the acquisition following a stunning tour of Pearson’s high-tech underground greenhouse. The transaction becomes complicated after interlopers join the bargaining fray and sabotage the deal. Most repellent are London street gangster, Coach (Colin Farrell, who has an introduction for the ages); opportunistic triad henchman, Dry Eye (Henry Golding in superb psychopathic villain form); media mogul, Big Dave (Eddie Marsan); and freelance photographer, Fletcher (Hugh Grant). The latter gentleman recounts the whole ordeal in flashbacks to Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), Pearson’s most valued assistant.
Ritchie’s tricky narrative unfolds in hyperactive reverse, a horse race back to the beginning where it all goes wrong. A bloody shocker of an opener immediately leapfrogs to a bold home invasion. Raymond is taken hostage in his own living room by Fletcher’s unflappable monologue, serving dual purpose of blackmail boasting and plot unscrambling. Although the fourth wall is never broken, the performances are so indulgent that viewers know they are being intentionally tantalized. Although it doesn’t make some of the darker, offensive, and queasier moments easier to stomach, Ritchie recognizes how long the yarn of tolerance extends.
Pleasantly surprising is the film’s overt homoeroticism, which adds to the laughs and subverts the stuffy machismo of the gangster genre. The methods by which it accomplishes this satire run the risk of caricature, but the quips are too intelligent and dry to permanently insult. Almost every scene is a confrontation of words that either escalates to violence or mitigates into petty foolishness. This lobbying of superiority never becomes repetitive since the story evolves into a game of survival of the wittiest. Perhaps the one drawback of knowing certain star personas so well is that many will figure out which ruffians ultimately come out on top. The ending – while meticulously woven to fruition – does feel a tad anticlimactic once the elaborate plan finally unveils.
Toughest of all is Michelle Dockery as Rosalind Pearson, the autonomous wife of Mickey who manages one of his fronts: a chic automotive repair shop. Behaving more as partners in every capacity than resigned spouses, their love for each other outweighs their lust for power. Dockery’s Rosalind combats every bout of disaster with groomed placidity, though her steely tone is fair warning not to push the limits of her professionalism. Hunam’s Raymond also shares a quiet intensity. When Raymond’s patience falls like quicksand, his cold intimidation tactics transform the actor’s normal vanilla flavor into Neapolitan. Without a weak link in the mix, “The Gentlemen” is already off to a ferocious campaign start for next year’s Screen Actors Guild awards.
“The Gentlemen” is a compelling criminal affair that gnaws and grinds its way to respect. It’s the grimier, sleazier, nastier cousin of “Knives Out” but without a shred of moral fiber. The Pearsons convince themselves of their righteousness since their lucrative vice is non-lethal, but even they can’t fully abandon their unlawful sensibilities. The script thankfully doesn’t aim to redeem its characters; it presents them as fittingly buffoonish and pathetic. Their mounting excuses for committing deplorable acts reiterates just how incorrigible they are. Ultimately, Guy Ritchie seeks to entertain, not enlighten or justify. For that simple undertaking, he’s more cinematic genius than most.